After a promising start to his NFL career, Dante Pettis went backwards last season.
The 49ers receiver hauled in 27 receptions for 467 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie, but produced a disappointing sophomore campaign in which he fell down the depth chart and ended up in Kyle Shanahan's doghouse.
It already was going to be a crucial third NFL season for Pettis, and when San Francisco selected two receivers -- Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings -- in the 2020 NFL Draft, it certainly appeared like he was going to have a tough time making the cut for the 53-man roster. The 49ers are unlikely to keep more than six receivers -- though the practice squad likely will be expanded -- and with Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor basically guaranteed locks, it seemed like Pettis, Jennings, Richie James and Travis Benjamin would be competing for one spot. It was by no means a certainty that Pettis would emerge from that competition.
Then Samuel sustained a Jones fracture in his foot, James fractured his wrist and Benjamin opted out. Suddenly, Pettis' prospects were looking up. He'd be able to get in a full offseason of work while others couldn't, and his experience logically would give him a leg up over a rookie, particularly given the irregularity of the offseason caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the job wasn't going to be handed to him -- that's not how Shanahan rolls. And it would appear the pressure on Pettis to have an impressive camp has now been ramped back up.
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Samuel's injury could temporarily open up a spot if the 49ers choose to play it safe and put him on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, keeping him out for the first six weeks of the season. Of course, based on the fact that he already is cutting without a cast, that's no guarantee.
James currently is on the NFL's reserve/COVID-19 list, but if he's healthy, he might be the favorite to take the final spot (or Samuel's temporary one.) But now he and Pettis will face additional competition in the form of veteran receivers Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson, who reportedly will be signed by the 49ers, pending physicals.
Like James and Pettis, Austin and Nelson bring plenty of speed to the table. In fact, they might be even faster. Nelson ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine (4.28 seconds), while Austin ran his in 4.34 seconds two years earlier. Austin is the most experienced of the four with 96 career games and also offers ample experience as a kick and punt returner.
Austin and Nelson undoubtedly were brought in to address a shortage of healthy bodies at the position, but they're definitely capable of emerging from the competition, and Shanahan clearly wants to add more of a speed element to it.
Pettis was an incredibly dynamic returner in college and showed tremendous receiving potential as a rookie. He arguably is the most talented of those in contention for the final receiver spot (or two), but he also has had the most chances to prove himself to the coaching staff.
There was a time when Pettis' path to the 53-man roster appeared written in pencil, at least. That no longer is the case, and the pressure is mounting on him to stand out during training camp.
Otherwise, he might not stick around.